Monday, March 26, 2012

YOUR NEXT BOOK - hysterical epidemic

I suspect that if you haven't heard about the Le Roy girls - victims of mysterious undiagnosed twitching - you've been living under a rock. The story's been everywhere, but I like this article in the New York Times magazine. (great photography, too. This photo's by Gillian Laub, from the article:)

In short, a bunch of teenage girls in a has-been industrial town in New York came down with tics around the same time. One after another - first it was the "it" girls, the cheerleaders, the bubbly ones, but eventually it trickled down to the shy, the emo, the left out - the girls fell victim to uncontrolled spasming, jerking, and twitching so severe they hurt themselves and couldn't go to school.

What you expect happened. Old industrial accidents were blamed; Erin Brokovich rode into town at one point, loaded for bear. Blah blah blah. So far it's not really interesting enough to carry a book.

Until you get to the mass psychogenic illness theories. Even these aren't terribly original, but they're a starting point. Can you create an epidemic with the power of suggestion? What if your target is vulnerable in some way - teens, for instance (V-for-vulnerable is their middle initial, wedged between I-for-intractible and S-for-Stubborn, if my own are any kind of example)? How about a nursing home population? Fans of a losing team? Backers of unpopular legislation?

Good, good, but so far, even if you throw in some dead bodies, it's still just a middling Law-and-Order episode.

Read the NYT article, however (kudos to author Susan Dominus; her features are always captivating) and you'll discover a comprehensible and interesting discussion of something called a hysterical epidemic. And here, finally, is where I think the roots of a great thriller might lie.

Dominus quotes a book called HYSTORIES by feminist critic Elaine Showalter, who says a hysterical epidemic requires 3 ingredients:
1. Physician-enthusiasts and theorists
2. unhappy and vulnerable patients
3. supportive cultural environments.

Well, well, well. 1 & 2 are deep character work. 3 is setting. What's so special about that? These are where you can add depth and richness to a thriller plot, my friends!

The conflict comes in when you pit the enviro-crazies (oops, my bad - said with affection xo) against those who are invested in believing the situation is all in people's heads. Your challenge is to keep stacking the deck against each population, giving them more and more reasons to be dug-in with their beliefs. Their need for their brand of truth must be strong that it trumps all their other values - in other words, they need to be willing to kill to protect it.

And of course, you get points for making the epidemic interesting. Showalter offers help here - from the synopsis of her book:
Hysteria has traditionally been seen as a female disorder but in this study of its cultural implications, the author argues that it is a universal illness and that far from dying out with the end of the Victorian sexual repression it is becoming more widespread and manifest. Showalter identifies Gulf War syndrome, recovered memory, chronic fatigue syndrome, even claims of ritual satanic abuse, as the contemporary forms of the illness and by recognizing its universality releases women from the limiting association with hysteria.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Crime fiction can be a great vehicle for exploring history, especially eras in the collective active memory of our country in which prevailing opinion was in violent flux. I may not have described that very elegantly but these are the two elements I'm thinking of:

1. Not everyone who was alive at that time is dead - we have a few living social historians and civilians who were there. I suppose nowadays that means events going back to the thirties.

2. I'm most interested in social issues in which our society has done a U-turn. That is to say, historically if you got a hundred random US citizens into a room and asked them about the issues, the outlying opinion would now be the majority opinion.

3. People were and are so passionate about the issue that it engenders violence (necessary for the "crime" part of the fiction). For instance, there has been a lot of change in the way we view intellectual property, but that would be tough to make into a compelling crime drama (but hey! prove me wrong!)

Obviously, this is far from an original thought. Changes in civil and women's rights provide a rich backdrop - a recent favorite example is Attica Locke's BLACK WATER RISING. There was a recent book - I wish I could remember the title - that proposed a murder investigation during a pandemic, which poses the interesting question, is justice for a single life worth getting all that excited about when people are dying on every block? (- which - sidebar - is, of course a character question; the real story here is about who would undertake such an investigation and why.)

Anyway, the front page of the NYTBR this week is devoted to FLAGRANT CONDUCT by Dale Carpenter. Here's the blurb, though I must caution you that it greatly oversimplifies and possibly misrepresents the book's treatment of the issue - (read the review instead):

No one could have predicted that the night of September 17, 1998, would be anything but routine in Houston, Texas. Even the call to police that a black man was "going crazy with a gun" was hardly unusual in this urban setting. Nobody could have imagined that the arrest of two men for a minor criminal offense would reverberate in American constitutional law, exposing a deep malignity in our judicial system and challenging the traditional conception of what makes a family. Indeed, when Harris County sheriff’s deputies entered the second-floor apartment, there was no gun. Instead, they reported that they had walked in on John Lawrence and Tyron Garner having sex in Lawrence’s bedroom.

So what I'm proposing is that you could write a fascinating story by dropping a murder into such a case. Honestly, I think your biggest problem would be convincing people that Texans could be so wrong-headed as recently as 1998 - or our Supreme Court for that matter, in particular Scalia, who - disappointed in the 2003 ruling reversing Texas's dumbassery - said the court had "largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda."***

.....okay, I'm going to insert a tiny little whine in here since we're talking about smart fiction, one of my favorite subjects. I finally got around to reading ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead and I pretty much love it. Sure, it's flawed, but you all know that I admire risk takers (and do NOT admire people who are content to rest on their laurels when it comes to growing as authors). What is really getting to me is the absolutely caustic, hateful response of many reviewers who complain that the book is full of too many big words and complex sentences. To them I say, with absolutely no judgment of comic books, if you want short sentences and words, go buy a fucking comic book and get the hell out of my discussion. (To me, they would be absolutely entitled to say, it ain't your discussion - a point i often lose sight of.) Anyway, ZONE ONE. Worthy.

*** Rock on, Scalia, I hope your future biographers caught that one and exact the proper pound of flesh.

Friday, March 16, 2012

You Just Never Know (bon voyage, Rachael)

My pal Rachael ran off to Italy today.

Oh, it was planned - for a while, anyway, but a short enough while to qualify for caprice, I think. Even better, she doesn't know *exactly* what she's going to do while she's there. A little wandering, a little wine...

A couple of years ago, when I didn't know her quite as well, Rachael announced she was headed to Tahoe for the day, to ski. By herself. I was dumbfounded. I had no idea a person could do that. In my world, "ski trip" was a concept that involved me shopping and packing for a week, the kids loaded into the back of the SUV with snacks and movies, and lots of planning to see who all else was going to be on the mountain that weekend, so that kids' lessons and apres-ski happy hours could be arranged.

Not Rachael. She just *went*. She was going to be that brave person who could swoosh, devil-may-care-like, into the singles line, a place I thought was reserved for 11-year-old boys trying to escape their parents. She was going to have a beer with lunch if she felt like it. She was going to ski as long as she wanted and no longer, take the time to admire any old view that caught her eye, and not worry about anyone else's feelings for a whole day.

It may sound like a small thing, but believe me, it wasn't - my life changed that day. I don't know if I will ever ski by myself - I seem to have given up skiing - but Rachael taught me that you can do whatever you damn well want whenever you feel like it, within the usual parameters of human decency (which, I might add, are MUCH broader than I used to think) and to hell with anyone who wants to stop you.

(They're just jealous, in case I need to point that out, which I doubt because you're all smart and I imagine you already figured this all out long before me.)

Anyway, in that spirit, I just renewed my passport. It had expired, and while I haven't been overseas in a decade, and have no plans to be any time soon, YOU JUST NEVER KNOW. I choose to believe that it's entirely possible that Germany's going to buy the rights to the AFTERTIME series tomorrow (come on, Germany, you KNOW you want me) and insist I come and tell them all about it. Or I might go to Turkey with Junior (I saw an ad in the NYT travel section) - or anything, really.

- and oh, decent passport photo! - which makes me believe the universe rewards optimism :)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

L.A. Quickie

No, no, not *that* kind of a quickie! I just meant that I left the driveway last Friday around ten and got home 36 hours later - me, Juliet Blackwell, and the trusty Volvo. We jammed a lot into those 36 hours:

First stop, halfway to L.A., was Harris Ranch. It's a hotel, restaurant, shop, and fast-food-oasis smack in the middle of cattle country. Out in front, they're always smoking some fantastic hunk of cow...brisket maybe? Of course we had to buy a ton of their home-made beef jerky. I was pretending I would save some for my next hiking trip, but we did a pretty good job on it.

We made great time to L.A., as usual. I'm not sure how that happens...we get into the car, talk about nothing, and BAM, there we are. So we checked into our hotel and went looking for a cafe in which to work. How could we resist when we saw this sign on the wall of Nue Studio & Cafe?

So we sit down with our laptops and the nice guys behind the counter talk us into trying something new. Well, one of us, anyway. It was a cayenne soda. True! I'm gonna hunt that sucker down up here in NorCal and I'll post about it because it's my new addiction.

But anyway, there we are, minding our own business, and then suddenly we're talking to the 6 guys who own this cafe/salon (a salon! how did we miss that part!) and it's been open for literally nine hours or something, and all of a sudden julie's getting her hair done and I'm feeling left out because I just had my hair done up here, so of course I ordered a custom BLUE hairpiece. Yes I did! The guy on the left is making it for me and when he ships it here I'll get Junior to take my picture. Can't WAIT. Julie and I agreed they did a great job on her - she says if only we lived closer, they would be her new regular guys.

Okay finally we're getting to the part of the trip we actually *planned.* Here I am with Ashley Ream at the launch party for her debut novel, LOSING CLEMENTINE. It's getting great reviews and Julie and I both loved it. We hung out with my agent Barbara Poelle, and also Holly Root and Dianne Emley and Sue Ann Jaffarian and Bobby McCue and I'm sorry if I'm forgetting anyone, and there was this ZESTY, COLORFUL lady in an odd getup stuffing the food into her purse after caressing each cube of cheese and individual grape, so *that* was entertaining.

Morning dawned sunny and beautiful...*after* the 2am helicopter police chase over our hotel! Yesss! I am fond of interesting neighborhoods and this one did not disappoint. (well, julie did appear a tiny bit disappointed by the bedbug she found on her pillow. LOLS - that laundry and quarantine was fun!) Here's a view from the window:

After a great breakfast with Barbara in which she ate for two and I ate more than both of them, Julie and I buzzed up to Thousand Oaks and did a book signing with our friend Deb Coonts at Mysteries to Die For. Shop owner Allan was more than welcoming - we felt like the literary queens we suspect we truly are, deep down.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Barbara R., the voice of Stella, strikes again

Delighted to announce that the fabulous Barbara Rosenblat will, once again, be the voice of the newest Stella Hardesty novel, A BAD DAY FOR MERCY, which will be out this June with Audible!

Barbara is absolutely perfect for the job. See for yourself - you can check out a free sample of A BAD DAY FOR SCANDAL.


Just this:

There is so much story here...I defy you to read this and not lose a little sleep over it. Also: when this girl trains, this is what is painted on the wall behind the ring:

"My Will is Stronger than Your Will."

You better act fast on this one, people, because I'm tempted to start writing it myself.

Monday, March 5, 2012

THREAD available on NetGalley

I've received quite a few requests for review copies of HANGING BY A THREAD, my young adult title that will be out in September from Delacorte. I'm afraid both I and my publisher are out of ARCs - but for a limited time it is available here at NetGalley.

If you end up reading it, I would love to know what you think! John Kwiatkowsky from Murder By The Book in Houston said the sweetest thing last week -

Hanging By A Thread is AMAZING!!! I just finished it and LOVED it!!! It was like a fresh I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Read more about the book here.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


I know, I know, there may not be room for another pet-grooming series in today's cozy market. That's not really where I was going with this. I highlights...? That makes *me* want to kill someone.

According to this article, people spend over $51 BILLION dollars on their pets annually. That's gotta be pretty galling, if you're the guy who's trying to stretch a paycheck to cover his kids' dentist bill. Or even buy a frosty brew at the end of the workweek.

So I'm imagining a sort of noir thing here...guy loses his lease - he's been a repairman, a bookie, a Cash4Gold guy, whatever - and this is what moves in. Of course he can't take it out on the pets (sidebar: I've always kind of wanted to kidnap over-coiffed animal and set them up with a feral island compound - think there's a kids' flick in there? - probably starring Dwayne Johnson) so instead he zeroes in their owners. Probably Hard Case Crime would go for this...